Men gathering around a radio listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 Pearl Harbor Speech. German POWs working on a Franklin County farm. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts supporting war bond rallies.
Such scenes are depicted among the more than 6,000 images by freelance photographer J.B. Muecke’s 1940s collection, most of which were originally published in The Herald, depicting the life of Midwesterners in Franklin County during World War II. The photos now are set to be researched as part of a grant awarded to the Franklin County Historical Society.
The Kansas Humanities Council awarded the historical society a $3,430 grant for its project, “Home Front in the Heartland, Revisited,” a research and oral history project, a historical society news release said.
“The civilian role in the home front aspect of World War II, particularly in rural areas, is long overdue for serious reevaluation,” Deb Barker, executive director of the historical society, said in the release. “The KHC grant gives us the opportunity to examine the Muecke photos and related materials under a scholarly lens and disseminate this research to the general public. In the process, we expect the project will spark discussion about the role of civilians during wartime as well as such universal concepts as shared sacrifice, duty, loss, unity, and support.”
About eight years ago, Morgan Williams, Washington D.C., began sending the historical society suitcases full of Muecke’s negatives, Barker said in a news conference at the Old Depot Museum, 135 W. Tecumseh St., Ottawa. It took about five years for Williams to send more than 6,000 negatives to Ottawa. It then took Ashley Brannan, an employee for the historical society, three years to scan, document and archive each negative depicting the home front in Franklin County.
“These pictures have a resonance for locals,” Barker said. “ ... This is just unendingly interesting what all has cropped up day after day after day. Having an opportunity to share it with people is pretty great too.”
In addition to Barker and the staff of the historical society, Virgil Dean, an expert in Kansas history and Franklin County native, will be the lead scholar on the project, the release said.
“When this project came up ... I was particularly interested in being involved because it was Franklin County and getting a chance to look specifically at some of the things I’ve been kind of familiar with but really [it was] to see if my memories or stories I’ve heard over the years are accurate or just to learn more about what was going on here or how that might have been different or similar to what we find elsewhere,” Dean said.
“Looking at the photos and looking at other research I’ve done and starting to do specifically with Ottawa, you can find a variety of themes we will be dealing with,” Dean said, noting several such as war work, sacrifices on the homefront, the impact of the De Soto Sunflower Ordnance Plant and more.
Henry Fortunato, founder of Sunflower Republic LLC, will serve as the project director and conduct interviews with “former children,” children who were growing up in Ottawa and the county during World War II, he said.
“These are images that are not just about Ottawa, they are emblematic of what the rural Midwest went through during the World War II years,” Fortunato said.
“These images haven’t been seen in nearly 75 years. They need to come back to life.”
In the spring, findings from the research grant will be presented in two public programs — one featuring a photo historian and the second a panel discussion of the “former children” with Dean as the moderator — at the Old Depot Museum, Fortunato said. Those photos and the research will hopefully turn into an exhibit that would eventually travel across the state, Barker said.
Kate Shelton is a Herald staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter at @kshelton323